Staley, No. 1 South Carolina making a point with new guards

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley directs her team against Coastal Carolina during the...
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley directs her team against Coastal Carolina during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Columbia, S.C., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. South Carolina won 102-39.((AP Photo/Nell Redmond))
Published: Dec. 29, 2022 at 1:50 AM EST
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(AP) - South Carolina’s Dawn Staley believes her point guards this season have all the skills necessary to help the Gamecocks win another national title.

Everything except experience. “Experience,” Staley said, “is irreplaceable.”

The Hall of Famer and one of the game’s greatest point guards hopes her latest group of floor generals has gained enough experience during non-conference play over the season’s first two months to be productive as the top-ranked Gamecocks start defense of their Southeastern Conference regular-season crown against Texas A&M on Thursday night.

And what South Carolina lacks in seasoning, Staley said, it makes up for in numbers.

“A lot of teams don’t have the luxury of the depth that we have in people that can play the point for us,” Staley said Wednesday.

Georgia Tech graduate transfer Kierra Fletcher was brought in this offseason to add some needed decision making with the loss of Destanni Henderson, the starting point guard for the 2022 national champions.

Second-year player Raven Johnson was one of the country’s highest-ranked recruits before last season. She was expected to learn behind Henderson and then go full bore into her sophomore season. But Johnson injured her knee in November 2021 and entered this year still in need of the lessons it takes to run the offense.

Fletcher has started 10 games for 12-0 South Carolina with Johnson starting the other two.

The Gamecocks have also used shooting guard Zia Cooke and 6-foot-3 forward Laeticia Amihere to run the offense at times this season. And Staley has let five-star freshman Talaysia Cooper take control often when the reserves are on court in blowouts.

“I like the progression of where Kierra is right now. I like where Raven’s headed since she’s still a freshman,” Staley said. “I like the fact that we can call on Zia and LA (Amihere) when we need a veteran, someone that’s been here and knows how to run some of the plays from the past.”

Johnson, the highest-rated member of South Carolina’s No. 1 overall recruiting class entering 2021, feels she’s gotten healthier and is playing more like her high-school self with her minutes increasing.

Johnson had a career-best seven assists in the Gamecocks 102-39 victory over Coastal Carolina on Dec. 21, their last game before the holiday break.

“My comfortability is high because I’m way better without the brace in my way,” said Johnson, who no longer wears a brace on her rehabbed knee. “I just feel like my normal self.”

It has been a successful rotation, but a far cry from Staley’s history as a player or coach. During her college career Staley missed only three games — all as a sophomore — out of 133 over four years as the single-minded point guard for Virginia from 1989-92.

From 2017-20, the coach relied on Tyasha Harris to lead her South Carolina offense. Harris, who started all but 12 of 139 games in her four seasons, helped the Gamecocks win three SEC Tournament titles and the 2017 national championship.

After Harris, it was Henderson who started all 65 games she played in her last two seasons as South Carolina reached the Final Four in 2021 then won it all a season ago.

Staley isn’t panicking amid the inconsistency at point guard, though she acknowledges it has been a concern.

“I think we’re just different,” Staley said of her team. “You’re talking about (Henderson) who as a two-year starter, in this program four years. She had incredible speed, she had predictability because she knew. Whether she played well or not, she just knew.”

Staley expects to soon feel that way about this year’s point guards. Fletcher and Johnson are working to improve, progress Staley sees continuing as the team gets into SEC play with an eye on the NCAA Tournament.

Besides, Staley said with a smile, “we got enough to give people a different look.”